BAJ Records BJCD-0018

Japan’s musical infrastructure is so vast, and the distances between that country, North America and Europe so extensive that we often possess an incomplete idea of its musicians and their talents.

Itemizing the Western experiences of kotoist Michiyo Yagi, who leads the ensemble on this CD, for instance, you’d thinks she was an out-and-out experimentalist. Spending a year as a visiting professor at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University in 1989-1990 confirmed an interest in adapting her instrument for modern composition. Since that time she has released a solo disc on John Zorn’s Tzadik label and performed with such certified American genre-benders as alto saxophonist Zorn, electric harpist Zeena Parkins and vocalist Lauren Newton. She is also one-third of the electro-improv band Hoahio with vocalist/thereminist/percussionist Haco and sampler/computer artist Sachiko M.

On his side, Masahiko Satoh, whose compositions and arrangements are performed here by Yagi’s seven member Paulowina Crush koto ensemble, won a jazz award from Japan’s Swing Journal magazine as long ago as 1969, after studies at Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Sine that time he has turned his attention to creating scores and arrangements for TV, film and record productions and even runs the BAJ label. Yagi too makes frequent appearances on Japanese TV, while the notes for this session boast of Crush’s “computer-like precision … to synchronize with music of any genre.”

Rather than sounding like music by Zorn or John Cage, to take two experimental exemplars, in fact, YURAL utilizes this combo of traditional 13-string and more unusual 17- and 20-string kotos for something that was probably more palatable for domestic consumption. To Western ears, the endproduct sounds like what would happen if Henry Mancini or Bob James wrote contemporary string band music.

“Hajo-gin” is the single time any type of dissonance creeps into the presentation — if, of course, it isn’t the expected atonality of Oriental sounds to Westerners. Although the tune begins with references to Japanese ceremonial court music, the performers actually seem to be playing off one another’s intricate riffs. Slowing down and speeding up again the serpentine melody elaborates sounds that resemble those Old-Timey music mandolin runs and ascending pizzicato harp glissandos. With suggestions of a low-down bass rumble that probably comes from Yagi’s 17-string instrument, it ends with the steady percussive rhythm of massed tugged metal strings.

Elsewhere the tracks range from sounding like how you imagine those formal, 58-piece mandolin orchestras of the 1920s would have, to a mixture that would result if an early string band group record was extended with primitive electronics. A couple are so slow moving, in truth, that somnolent baroque recitals come to mind. But the rest are pleasant enough, with the steady syncopated repetition from the consolidated strings hinting at everything from speedy Bluegrass mandolin picking, middle-European ballad tremolos, half-remembered folk ballads and plucked Appalachian hammered dulcimers. There’s no hint of the “extended techniques” and unconventional “scales and tunings” promised in the notes — at least, again, not to Occidental sensibilities.

Now obviously one shouldn’t expect outstanding, unforgettable creations just because a disc features so-called exotic instruments and sophisticated musicians from another culture. But surely with the massed talent here, more than acceptable near-background fare could have resulted.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Nahm 2. Ta-gin 3. Iberian Sunset 4. Hajo-gin 5.Ka-gai 6. A Plowing Song of Kyeshong 7. Tan Tejah

Personnel: Michiyo Yagi (koto [1, 6], 17-string koto [4, 7], 20-string koto [2-3, 5]); Hiroko Takahashi (koto [2, 6], 17-string koto [1, 4-5]); Hiromi Inoue (koto [2, 4-5]; Yasuyo Takeuchi (koto [4-5], 17-string koto [1-2]; Madoka Nakano (koto [2, 4-5], 17-string koto [1]); Ikumi Seki (koto [1, 4], 17-string koto [2, 5]; Yuka Sumino (17-string koto [2, 5])